Does Caffeine Affect the Taste of Coffee and Cola?

Caffeine as a Flavoring

While you normally think of caffeine as a stimulant, it also contributes a pleasant bitter flavor to coffee and cola.
While you normally think of caffeine as a stimulant, it also contributes a pleasant bitter flavor to coffee and cola. Jesus Ayala, Getty ImagesCola or Soda

Caffeine occurs naturally in coffee and is added to cola. Have you ever wondered whether caffeine has a flavor of its own or whether decaffeinated drinks taste different from their caffeinated counterparts because of this ingredient? If so, here's what you need to know.

The Flavor of Caffeine

Yes, caffeine has a flavor. On its own, it tastes bitter, alkaline, and slightly soapy. In coffee, cola and other beverages it contributes this flavor, plus it also reacts with other ingredients to produce new flavors.

Removing caffeine from coffee or cola changes the flavor of the drink because the resulting products are missing the bitterness of caffeine, the flavors resulting from interactions between the caffeine and other ingredients in the product, and also because the process of removing caffeine may impart or remove flavors. Also, sometimes the recipe for decaffeinated products differs by more than just the absence of caffeine.

How Is Caffeine Removed?

Caffeine is often added to cola, but it also naturally occurs in the leaf extracts used as flavorings. If caffeine is omitted as an ingredient, others need to be added to approximate the original flavor.

Removing caffeine from coffee is more complicated because the alkaloid is part of the coffee bean.The two main processes used to decaffeinate coffee are the Swiss water bath (SWB) and ethyl acetate wash (EA).

For the SWB process, coffee is decaffeinated using osmosis in a water bath.

Soaking the beans can remove flavor and aroma as well as caffeine, so the coffee is often soaked in water enriched with caffeine-free green coffee extract. The end product is a decaffeinated coffee with a (milder) flavor of the original beans, plus the flavor of the coffee extract.

In the EA process, caffeine is extracted from the beans using the volatile organic chemical ethyl acetate.

The chemical evaporates, plus any residue is burned off during the roasting process. However, EA processing does affect the flavor of the beans, often adding a fruity flavor, like wine or bananas. Whether this is desirable or not is a matter of taste.

Does Decaf Taste Better or Worse Than Regular Coffee?

Whether decaffeinated coffee tastes better or worse than the regular cup of joe is a matter of personal preference. Decaffeinated coffee doesn't usually taste a lot different, just lighter. If you like the flavor of a dark, bold roast, decaffeinated coffee probably won't taste as good to you. On the other hand, if you like a light roast, you may prefer the flavor of decaf.

Keep in mind, there are already huge flavor differences between coffee products because of the origin of the beans, the roasting process, and how they are ground. If you don't like the flavor of one decaffeinated product, that doesn't mean you'll necessarily hate all of them. There are even coffee varieties that naturally contain less caffeine, so they don't need to undergo additional processing.